First appeared in BOXSCORE
By Aron Solomon
On Thursday at the Miami Open, a very important WTA and ATP 1000-level tournament event, Russia’s Anastasia Potapova defeated Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk 6-1, 6-3, in a match that never should have been played.
If you were waiting for the traditional handshake at the net today, you’re still waiting. By her words and actions, Marta Kostyuk has been one of the heroes of the Ukrainian athletic scene; conversely, Anastasia Potapova has been a self-styled lightning rod for controversy.
This barely touches the surface of this important story – one that highlights the WTA’s ongoing failure to protect Ukrainian players since the Russian invasion.
At Indian Wells two weeks ago, the first (along with the current Miami stop) of the two “Sunshine Slam” big money and big points U.S. March hardcourt tournaments, the WTA dropped the ball in absurd and dramatic fashion. All the WTA did was slap Potapova’s wrist for, in a remarkably insensitive move, wearing a Spartak Moscow soccer jersey over her outfit as she came out for her third-round match, which she lost 7-5 in the deciding third set to American Jessica Pegula. For those unfamiliar, Spartak is a Russian military-affiliated sports academy and club, of which Potapova herself is a product.
As Eurosport first reported, Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko said she withdrew from her Indian Wells match against Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka (an eventual Indian Wells finalist who lost to Moscow-raised, Kazakhstan-sponsored Elena Rybakina) after she endured a severe panic attack. The source of the Ukrainian star’s panic was the result of a conversation with WTA chief executive Steve Simon, whose own tenure is very much in jeopardy given the mishandling of the WTA’s international problems with Russia and China, as well as his failure to accelerate the WTA’s eternally stagnant business model.
Tsurenko, who has been on tour for a decade and a half, said she was “shocked” by Simon’s attitude and responses about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In brief, Simon allegedly told Tsurenko that Russian and Belarusian players were free to voice their opinions in support of the invasion – in essence, that opinions were just opinions and would be unfettered by the WTA.
This just can’t go on. It’s terrible for the game and worse for the emotional and physical health of Ukrainian players. I’ve long been an advocate for professional tennis players being what they truly are – independent contractors. But when players choose, as Potapova did, to promote violent political imagery, they need a lengthy suspension. For Potapova, that should have been until Russia withdrew from Ukraine and not a second sooner.
To be clear: There is no way that Marta Kostyuk should have been subjected to playing Potapova today. That the match took place is an embarrassingly bad look for the WTA.
After the Spartak incident, the world number 1, Poland’s Iga Swiatek, took the leadership role that the WTA chief abrogated and spoke out against Potapova’s actions and in support of the Ukrainian athletes.
And, not that it would be any excuse if there were only one strong WTA player from Ukraine, but there are many. Here are the Ukrainian women in the top 200 of the WTA singles rankings:
- Angie (Anhelina) KALININA (28th in the world)
- Marta KOSTYUK (38)
- Lesia TSURENKO (81)
- Kateryna BAINDL (84)
- Dayana YASTREMSKA (136)
- Daria SNIGUR (154)
It is critically important to note that there are VERY few examples of situations where an athlete has been forced to compete against an opponent from a nation that has declared war against their country.
One of the most well-known cases of this happening is during the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, Germany. Several Jewish athletes from various countries, including the United States, were faced with the decision to compete against German athletes at a time when Nazi Germany had declared war against Jews and was actively persecuting them. One of the most notable athletes was Marty Glickman, an American sprinter and football player who was pulled from the 4×100 meter relay team at the last minute, allegedly due to pressure from the Nazi regime and concerns that having a Jewish athlete compete would offend Hitler.
Another example was during the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow, Soviet Union. The United States and other countries boycotted the games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, but some athletes from countries that did not participate in the boycott were still faced with the decision of whether to compete against Soviet athletes. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Soviet Union had also boycotted the previous Olympic Games held in Los Angeles in 1984, so athletes from both countries were denied the opportunity to compete against each other during those years.
The casual tennis observer needs to be reminded that the professional tennis tour isn’t like the Olympic Games. As Michael Epstein, a lawyer who closely follows the intersection of sports and law, commented:
“Given that there are tournaments every week for over ten months of the year, any condition that would cause a player to have what is potentially a legal grievance would repeat week after week. It’s incumbent upon the governing bodies of the sport to ensure the safety of all players.”
None of this will go away quickly because it would take the kind of courage the WTA has yet to exhibit for it to do so. The future will almost certainly find a weak women’s tennis governing body continuing to be reactive rather than proactive; empowering a reality where players who come from and live in a nation under siege to endure an unnecessary added layer of atrocities as they take to the tennis courts each week to earn a living for themselves, their families, their coaches, trainers, and many others who remain in Ukraine.
About Aron Solomon
A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor-in-Chief for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, YouTube, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.